Sydney Brenner

No Ordinary Scientist


Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate and Honourary Graduate of Rhodes University passed away on Friday April 5th in Singapore.  He was 92.


Born in Germiston, South Africa in 1927, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant, Brenner taught himself to read at the age of four from newspapers used as tablecloths on the dining room table. He completed the first three years of primary schooling in one year and started the fourth year aged six. At fifteen Brenner won a scholarship to attend Medical School at the University of the Witwatersrand and being too young to practice medicine when he graduated, completed a Masters in genetics.  At Wits Brenner was active in student politics, organising debates, and, along with Phillip Tobias, becoming one of the most prominent liberal students at the university.


Brenner completed a D.Phil. at Exeter College, Oxford. On a visit to Cambridge in April 1953 to meet Francis Crick and James Watson, in the Cavendish Laboratory. Dr Brenner was among the first group of people ever to see Crick and Watson’s new model of the structure of DNA.


“… and there on the side I can remember very clearly was this small model with plates for the bases - the original model with everything screwed together... So that's when I saw the DNA model for the first time, in the Cavendish, and that's when I saw that this was it. And in a flash you just knew that this was very fundamental.”


This visit led to a 20 year collaboration with Francis Crick that resulted in some of the most important biological discoveries of the 20th century and heralding the age of molecular biology. One of Brenner’s most notable discoveries during this time was to establish the existence of and function of messenger RNA and to elucidate the mechanism of protein translation in living cells.


In the mid-1960s Dr Brenner became interested in developmental biology. “I was …more interested in finding a simple experimental system, which might tell me how brains were constructed”. His ground-breaking research on programmed cell death in the roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, mapped the genes involved in development of the nervous system was published in 1976 and led to Brenner being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2002. 


“Evolution is not about creating new genes; rather it is about creating new ways to use old genes.”


In the 1990s Dr Brenner led a project to sequence the genome of the Japanese puffer fish, the first privately funded major genome project. The puffer fish has the simplest of all vertebrate genomes, providing the blueprint for deciphering the complexities of our human genome. In 2001 he lent his weight in support of a funding proposal led by Rhodes University researchers for a flagship research project focused on the biology of South African coelacanths, their genome and their environment, which is now the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP). The coelacanth genome sequencing project (the “Fantasy Genome Project”) was completed in 2013 shedding light on the evolution of vertebrate limbs and our immune system.


“Innovation comes only from an assault on the unknown.”


In the early 1990s, Brenner moved to California where he first worked at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla and later re-joined Crick as a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute. He spent the last part of his career building the biomedical sciences in Singapore, where he became its first honorary citizen. It was during this time that he put much effort into building scientific capacity and mentoring the next generation of scientists. Dr Brenner’s scientific contribution is exceptional, but his most important legacy will undoubtedly be the thousands of students and scientists he has inspired and mentored.


Dr Brenner is survived by his three children. His wife, May (Covitz) died in 2010.






Rosemary Dorrington, April 8, 2019


Last Modified: Fri, 12 Apr 2019 14:04:59 SAST